Monday, February 20, 2012

Wilderness Under Seige

On Saturday I spent the afternoon hiking around Raven Rocks in West Virginia.  I particularly remember one moment when my friends and I, after leaving the trail and bushwacking down the side of the ridge to find a cave, stopped for a moment in silence to listen to the sound of the dead leaves caught in the bare trees that surrounded us on every side.  From every direction the leaves seemed to be whispering something just beyond our grasp. The sound was only broken by distant birdcalls and the muffled thumps of target practice being conducted somewhere along the valley.  This moment is one reason why, when I picked up a copy of the Washington Examiner to read for kicks on the metro ride home, I was so enfuriated by Ron Arnold's op-ed peice, Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts' political war.

The article applauds the work of Don Amador, a Beltway lobbyist advocating "to keep scenic forest roads and public trails open to motorcyclists, snowmobilers, trail bikers, dune buggy fans and other OHVers".  This article paints Amador as the "General" of "embattled motorized recreation enthusiasts" in their struggle against the monolithic axis of evil that is "Big Green's ferocious and lavishly funded anti-OHV faction - those selfish, relentless, and effective elitists out to reduce public access to federal lands substantially, if not altogether".  It also bemoans the Wilderness Act of 1964, the act that created the federal category of designated wilderness areas in which there is no mechanized vehicle access or man-man structures built, and trails are generally maintained to a lower standard.

Amador is from the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an oil-, mining-, timber-, and motorized recreation-funded advocacy outfit that sees it as its obligation to its members to attack the very idea of legislated "wilderness" and aims to ensure that there is no federal territory anywhere that is protected from motor vehicles.  BRC, like the Examiner article itself, seeks to promote a political narrative in which "elite" anti-recreation environmentalists seek to close off access to any public lands they can from everyone except, well, themselves.  Like most political narratives, this one works by portraying the population as inherently divided, in this case between a majority who require their noisy, polluting motorized vehicles to access wild areas and a small minority with the necessary fitness, money, and leisure time to  hike on foot into these spaces.  The BRC sees environmental organizations as anti-human in that they ultimately desire to close off any and all access by the public to whatever wild lands they can get their hands on.

I have spent a lot of time in federally designated wilderness areas in both the West and the East.  Just this summer I had an amazing weekend backpacking through New Hampshire's Pemigawasset Wilderness.  The honest truth is that there are very good reasons why a small proportion of federal wildlands should always be closed off from motor vehicle access and human development of any kind.  The noise and pollution that comes with these vehicles, plus the necessary increased trail maintenance work, necessarily robs these areas of a certain value in terms of biodiversity, solitude, and serenity.

Currently designated wilderness makes up only 4.82% of the country's land area, although even that figure is misleading, since more than half of that wilderness is located in Alaska, where, in fact, limited use of motorized vehicles and limited human development is already allowed in wilderness areas.  That means that, in the lower 48, only 2.58% of land is designated of wilderness.  The idea that even this tiny bastion of motor-vehicle-free wildland should be indiscriminately opened up to these devices is bizarre.

BRC's contention that prohibiting bikes or motor vehicles from wilderness areas necessarily denies access to groups of people is not only fallacious but misframes the issue.  Arnold, in the article, blames the Wilderness Act for being "why you can't drive your kids or their granny through a federal wilderness area some nice weekend afternoon".  He seems to envision a hypothetical future in which roads carrying minivans of the elderly and disabled run through all federal wildlands, yet paradoxically, these lands manage to retain their value as solitary, remote recreational destinations.  Yes, prohibiting the building of roads and the use of mechanized vehicles in these areas does make it more difficult to access them.  But in no way does it bar any one person or group of people from getting into them.  Pack animals are still a legal and perfectly legitimate way of traveling in wilderness, one that is available for day rental and, in my view, requires no more physical stamina than riding an OHV over rocky mountain trails does.  Yes, the prohibition on mechanized vehicles does prevent every Joe Schmoe with a few hours to kill on a sunday afternoon from revving up the ATV and driving through pristine woodland to check out the foliage.  Yes, because of the prohibition, it takes time, effort, and dedication to access these areas; you have to really want to be there for the sake of being there.  But no one (except, perhaps, those so frail they can't ride a pony, and would probably never even be able to ride an OHV either) is denied their right to access these lands.

Arnold attacks what he sees as the undue influence of big money in matters of public policy.  Apparently, in matters of environmental policy and federal-land-use issues, the worst offenders aren't the coal, oil and timber companies smacking their drooling lips over all those resources in wilderness areas just begging to be pillaged.  No, the real big-money wielders are the "Big Green" outfits like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.

I contend that for any mainstream political voice to claim undue influence of money in politics, in our current moment, is fundamentally disingenuous and necessarily misrepresentative.  Yes, our nation has a problem with money in politics.  In fact, you need money, lots and lots of it, to make your voice heard at all in today's political climate.  The right uses these tactics, and the left uses them too.  Everyone does it, and it isn't going to stop.  Whenever anyone even close to the mainstream political views of this country to cries foul over money in politics, its always in an attempt to destroy the influence of the other side (I exempt those with views so radical or fringe that their voice really IS silenced by the lack of big-money outfits advocating for them - although in truth their are a number of fringe political extremists on the right in the US today that have no problem finding plenty of money to make their voice unduly heard).

Finally, I cannot ignore the penultimate paragraph of Arnold's article.  Its short and I think it deserves to be quoted in its entirety here:
What's most political about trail decisions is that they're not just for OHV enthusiasts. They're about keeping federal lands open for business. Think timber, mining, farming, ranching, oil and gas.
I have to admit I was quite surprised to see this stated so openly and specifically.  I would have thought that an underlying agenda of using the debate about recreational use of wilderness as a vanguard to ultimately push the interests of these industries would be something that the OHV-faction for which Arnold speaks would wish to keep quiet.  I would have thought that the BRC and their ilk would prefer to represent their interests as fundamentally distinct from the interests of the resource-pillagers of the fuel and mineral industry.  Nope.  Apparently these "OHV enthusiasts" see no disconnect between their rally for increased recreational use and larger fight to open land to industrial use which would severely limit its recreational value.

Now, I'm not opposed to certain forms of industrial development on federally protected land; as Richard White has pointed out, environmentalists are too often "equate productive work with destruction", seeing nonproductive recreation as the only valid and sustainable use of wildlands, thus leaving all those who support productive industry on the anti-environmental side.  However, not all industrial use of wildland is equal, and certainly the wide range of industries that Arnold lists in the end of his articles do not all represent equal threats to protected land.  Oil and gas extraction are intensively damaging and polluting practices that must be strenuously resisted n all protected wildlands.  What these industries do is take a public good, held in common - namely, wild and biodiverse areas with their educational and recreational value - and convert them to a resource to be consumed for private profit.

On the other hand, timbering, farming, and ranching, in theory, are productive industries that can be integrated into protected wildland in a manner that doesn't damage the integrity of the land as a wild area and a good held in the common. The forces of biology are not so fragile that controlled, sustainable techniques can prevent ecological compromise.  This, of course, requires intensive oversight and regulation, but I am getting beyond the scope of this article.  That being said, even these industries must be kept out of designated wilderness areas.  As I have mentioned, wilderness is a tiny portion of the land area of the USA, and holds great value for our society precisely because it is untouched by devlopement.  Arnold's out-of-the-blue invocation of industry interests at the end of his paragraph is interesting because it turns an issue of public access - of increasing the public value of a public good - into an issue of private profit.  It does this, of course, through the pervasive capitalist narrative (implied here in the phrase "open for business") that private profit is actually public profit because private profit drives the economy and benefits the public.

Despite all the rhetoric, what the political forces of the Blue Ribbon Coalition et al.,  represent is a fundamental attack on the legal concept of wilderness as created by the landmark Wilderness Act (1964) and Eastern Wilderness Acts (1975).  Besides the fact that Arnold makes it clear that the issue over the recreational use of wilderness is in part a vanguard attack to clear the way for big industry to get its paws on those last bits of protected land, the issue of motorized vehicle access is a purposely divisive narrative that seeks to define environmentalists as anti-recreation and fundamentally pitted against OHV enthusiasts.  Instead of entrenching these divisions which ultimately serve the interests of those who want to see federal land gutted of all protection from development, we need a new narrative.  Those who enjoy public land recreationally need to come together and recognize that there is always a value to protecting certain pieces of land from the intrusion that motorized vehicle necessarily represent - but, even more importantly, also recognizing that all recreationists have an interest in seeing federal protection of wild lands built up, and not torn down.

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